We are just one day away from the true beginning of the madness, with apologies to Mount St. Mary's and Coppin State, of course.
The past few days, we've discussed recent tournament trends, upsets that are ripe for the pickin' and games in which most of America is too confident. Now's the time for us to put our money where our mouth is (not literally, of course, since Tournament Challenge is free to play, but anyway ...).
Our college basketball fantasy trio of AJ Mass, Christopher Harris and Keith Lipscomb have finalized their brackets, so we thought we'd try to get their thoughts on the Big Dance and see how they came up with their finished products by asking a series of questions.
Which is the strongest regional?
Mass: If you're just looking at the top four seeds, I'd say the East, but as far as the strongest from top all the way down to the bottom? I go with the Midwest. If three out of the four teams that regional supplies to the Sweet 16 end up being 9-seeds or lower, I'd be surprised, but wouldn't be anywhere near in need of medical assistance from falling out of my chair.
Harris: Everyone's saying East, but I go with the Midwest. Maybe Kansas shouldn't have been a No. 1, but you've got the Big East regular-season winner (Georgetown), the Big Ten regular-season and tournament winner (Wisconsin), and scary teams like Clemson, USC, Gonzaga, Davidson and Kansas State. In the East, clubs like Washington State, Notre Dame and Oklahoma don't impress me as much.
Lipscomb: While I think it's the weakest regional from top to bottom, when I think of which regional is toughest, I immediately look at the top four or five seeds, so I've got to go with the East, with the South not far behind. There's no question North Carolina, Tennessee and Louisville are all strong Final Four contenders, but I really like the top six seeds in the South, as well. They're not getting the attention I think they deserve when toughest regionals are discussed.
Which is the weakest regional?
Mass: South by a large margin. Stanford is the worst of the 3-seeds, while Kentucky, Oregon, Miami and Mississippi State are all, to varying degrees, lucky to have gotten in the tournament at all. This one goes chalk to the Sweet 16.
Harris: Probably the West. Duke shouldn't be a No. 2 (Wisconsin should), UConn is high at No. 4, Georgia is the lowest-seeded BCS conference team ever and Arizona is a dud waiting to happen. It's not an utter cakewalk for UCLA, but I'd rather have their road than anyone else's.
Lipscomb: I've got to go with the West, as well. Duke relies too much on the 3-pointer for my blood, in terms of national title contenders, and I don't think UConn or Drake will make much noise, either.
Which No. 1 seed is most likely to lose first?
Harris: Memphis. This is a top-heavy tournament, so I think all No. 1s get to the Elite Eight. But having to tackle Texas in Houston is really rough, and I just don't trust the Tigers' free-throw shooting. Kansas will be vulnerable against Clemson if the Tigers hit their outside shots.
Mass: This is a tough one, because going into the tournament, I was fully expecting to select Kansas to win the whole thing. My gut tells me that Memphis is going to get burned in the regionals by its free-throw shooting problems, but after seeing the matchups, I'm going way out on a limb and selecting Kent State to upset the Jayhawks in the second round.
Lipscomb: I expect most to agree with either Christopher or AJ, but in my bracket, I've got No. 1 overall seed North Carolina bowing out first, in the regional final in Charlotte. And yes, I am geographically sound enough to know that Charlotte is in North Carolina. I liked what I saw from Tennessee when they went into a hostile environment and beat Memphis, and I expect them to do the same to the Heels.
Which No. 12 seed is most likely to win?
Lipscomb: While Villanova certainly has the personnel to beat Clemson, the only one I picked was Western Kentucky to beat Drake. Funny thing is, I like Drake as a team, but I feel they would've been better off facing a slower, plodding team with size that couldn't handle Drake's perimeter attack. I expect it to be a very entertaining game.
Mass: I think Drake beats Western Kentucky easily and Temple has a poor outing against Michigan State. Villanova can beat Clemson if they shoot lights-out, but they're so erratic, it's hard to count on the Wildcats. George Mason actually has players with Final Four experience, and even though Notre Dame is bigger and should dominate, if the Patriots can stay close, the Irish will have flashbacks to last year's loss to Winthrop and history will end up repeating itself. We'll go with Mason.
Harris: I didn't pick any No. 12s, though the one I thought longest about was George Mason, because of that experience factor. But Luke Harangody should be able to handle Folarin Campbell and Co.
Which was the toughest first-round game to pick?
Harris: West Virginia versus Arizona. I'm perennially tempted by the Arizona athletes, and Nic Wise and Jerryd Bayless now are healthy, too -- but I decided not to give into temptation this year. I'm trying to stay away from double-digit at-large seeds (except for Saint Joseph's, I guess).
Lipscomb: Excluding all the 9-versus-8 matchups, since they were all difficult for me, Oklahoma-Saint Joseph's would be mine. The Sooners' backcourt scoring is just so spotty, and I worry about how the Hawks will stop Blake Griffin and Longar Longar down low. I should have flipped a coin to determine the winner. I went with Oklahoma, by the way.
Mass: Purdue-Baylor. Purdue is vastly over-seeded here, and I didn't think Baylor should have made the tournament in the first place. Not a lot separates these two teams talent-wise, but over the years, I've noticed that the team I least thought deserving of a spot usually goes on to win its first game just to spite me. I'll take Baylor, but I don't like it.
Toughest game to pick overall?
Harris: Tennessee-Louisville (Sweet 16). If they both get that far (and I think they will), that's a crazy-good game. David Padgett can do some damage for the Cardinals, and I think I went back and forth five times. It's the right recipe to beat UT: exotic defenses and pressure that could make them be jump-shooters. In the end, though, I don't think it's quite enough, so the Vols should march on.
Mass: Memphis-Pittsburgh (Sweet 16). I've gone back and forth on this one. Pitt is not nearly as talented as Memphis, which is why I'm wavering so much. But the Panthers are such an aggressive team defensively that in order for the Tigers to win, they'll have to do it from the line, which is their Achilles' heel. In the end, I think that's what sends Calipari and Co. home.
Lipscomb: Xavier-Duke (Sweet 16). Two teams without a true center, plenty of scoring options and good shooters. I went with the team that likely won't forget its tough second-round overtime loss to Ohio State last year. I think that will motivate the Musketeers throughout this tournament.
Who's your sleeper pick?
Lipscomb: USC to the Elite Eight. I can't remember a year in which I picked so few big upsets overall. Getting past the the first-round matchup with Kansas State will be tough enough, but I like the way they defend, as well as how O.J. Mayo is peaking at the right time.
AJ: Arizona. All this talk from Arizona State apologists makes it seem as though the Wildcats were the last team in, and that couldn't be farther from the truth. They're motivated to win to quiet all the naysayers, and could make a very deep run.
Harris: Oral Roberts. After Bob Knight goes on TV and picks Pittsburgh to win the tournament, I have the Panthers bounced in the first round. The Golden Eagles are huge up front and have tons of tourney experience, and I think they can take out both Pitt and Michigan State.
Which team will make or break your bracket?
Mass: My pick of Kent State to upset Kansas could come back to haunt me, especially if Kansas goes on to win the whole thing. But more crucial to my brackets are the Big East duo of Pittsburgh and Louisville, both of whom I expect to make a run to the Elite Eight. If the Panthers are too worn out -- either emotionally or physically -- from their Big East title run, my bracket surely will be busted.
Harris: Wisconsin. I'm making a big bet on a fundamentally-sound team going up against some wild-and-crazy athletes in their subregional, namely Cal State Fullerton, USC and Kansas State. And then, I have the Badgers avoiding a rough matchup with Georgetown because of a Davidson upset, which puts Wiscy in my Elite Eight.
Lipscomb: Besides the aforementioned USC, I'd have to say Tennessee, because I have them in the championship game, while I know many who have them bowing out to Louisville in the Sweet 16.
Which teams make up your Final Four?
Mass: North Carolina, Vanderbilt, Texas, UCLA.
Harris: North Carolina, Kansas, Texas, UCLA. Not quite all No. 1s, but very close. It's a top-heavy year, and I expect the cream to rise.
Lipscomb: Tennessee, Kansas, Memphis, UCLA.
Which is your most confident Final Four pick?
Mass: North Carolina. Forgetting for a moment the fact that Carolina can walk to their first four tournament games, I don't see a team in the East Regional that the Tar Heels should lose to, and I'd be extremely surprised if they're even tested until the Elite Eight.
Harris: UCLA, because the West seems weak, and because I'm banking on the health of Kevin Love and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute.
Lipscomb: Gotta agree with Chris on that one. UCLA doesn't have as many potential roadblocks, in my opinion.
Which is your least confident Final Four pick?
Mass: Vanderbilt. The complete flip side of North Carolina, I'm not even 100 percent sure the Commodores will beat Siena at this point, but there's something about this team that makes me think they'll be very successful. It's the same way I felt about Syracuse with Carmelo, and Cincinnati back in the days of Nick Van Exel.
Harris: Texas. I've been bitten by athletic Longhorn teams before (et tu, Kevin Durant?), but this draw suits them pretty well. If they do get Memphis in the regional final, well, they're underdogs.
Lipscomb: Kansas. Recent history dictates that I feel this way.
Which team wins it all?
AJ: North Carolina. I like the Longhorns to keep the Tar Heels honest, but in the end, Psycho T won't be denied.
Harris: UCLA. I'm a big believer in Darren Collison. Man, that dude is fast. Plus, this team is suited to bang Tyler Hansbrough and keep him relatively under wraps.
Lipscomb: UCLA. I just love the way this team defends and hits the glass. And they've got a bunch of winners and a big shot-maker in Darren Collison.